Bo Beck: A local Icon
Zion Search and Rescue: The High Angle with Bo Beck
Bo Beck, Photo courtesy of http://www.elveschasm.com
Bo Beck is a household name in southern Utah, at least in the outdoor community. Even if you don’t know his name, it is possible you have seen his face in the Desert Rat if you have gone in there for any outdoor gear. Though Bo is often synonymous with Zion National Park because of his co-written book with Tanya Milligan, Favorite Hikes In & Around Zion National Park, and the fact that he knows quite a bit about all things outside in this area, it is his service to the outdoor community that marks him as a local icon. Not only is he a great and personable guy, not only is he an avid outdoorsman, he is also part of Zion National Park’s high angle search and rescue team. In other words, if you get into a bad situation out in the wild and need to be rescued, there is a high probability that Bo will be one of the rescuers on the scene. It is for these reasons that I wanted to get to know Bo and get out on some adventures with him, but also why I wanted to tell a part of his story to the community that benefits from his expertise and watchful eye.
It was still dark as we sped toward Zion National Park. The plateaus and bluffs were just large shadows against the night sky as it turned cobalt blue with the approach of dawn. The roads were largely empty as the towns lay in slumber. We were on our way to hike Lady Mountain, one of the peaks in Zion National Park. An earlier attempt had been cut short due to an injury, so I was inching for that summit. I was hoping it would not elude me again. Lady Mountain was the first maintained front country trail in Zion. It still has remnants of the Park’s attempts to maintain it as shorn off metal bolts can be seen periodically sticking out of rock faces on the scramble up, hinting at a time when chains, rails, and ladders were installed to help people up the strenuous route. Though it is no longer listed by Zion National Park as a designated trail, it is still a popular backcountry trail for those who know it is there. Our group consisted of two vehicles. I rode with Bo to get an interview with him on the way up.
Bo is not a native to southern Utah, but despite his somewhat misleading Midwestern accent, he is a native to the Southwest. Originally from New Mexico, and not far from southern Utah, he took the long way to get here via a stint in the Air Force, sailing around the world, and ultimately taking a job at an outdoor retailer located in St. George. Most people who know Bo know him as the manager of the Desert Rat, the local outdoor store, or as part of Zion Search and Rescue (SAR). Though I have known Bo for half a dozen years, we didn’t become friends until a couple of years ago. Strangely enough we got to know each other through tragedy, which I am certain, is probably true of a lot of people who know him. He was friends with Lyle Hurd who died rock climbing in Zion 2012. He had been there for the recovery, and we were both part of the long funeral process.
But it was my first outing with him that really put some meat on our relationship. I had wanted to do a canyon with him for some time, so when he invited me to do Employee Canyon with him and a group of people, I excitedly said yes. After I accepted the invitation he told me that the trip was being done for a woman who wanted to put closure on her sister’s death that had happened some 15 years ago at the very canyon we were going through. That knowledge added a solemn hue to the trip as we traced the route that Tiffany’s sister Sasha had taken. We hiked to the top of Mountain of the Sun and then canyoneered down through Employee Canyon, also known as Lodge Canyon. There was no way around imaging Sasha’s death as we made the final rappel where she had fallen 150 feet to her death. In the hanging garden at the bottom songs of remembrance were played, tears were shed, and hugs were passed at what felt like another funeral. I felt humbled to be there and will never again do or look at that canyon without thinking of the young woman who fell while trying to duck out of the way of a falling rock.
Outdoor adventure is dangerous and carries a certain amount of risk, no matter how prepared or skilled. The recent base jumping deaths at Zion show that even professional outdoor athletes die from mishaps and chance. Due to my history with Bo and the fact that we were heading out to do a dangerous hike, I asked him how he had become a part of Zion’s SAR team.
His career with Zion’s high angle search and rescue unit happened by chance through his big wall climbing partner, Dean Woods, at Zion in the summer of 1996. Dean was amongst a handful of other big wall climbers who had volunteered to help Zion National Park’s Acting Chief Ranger Dave Buccello, who was in charge of emergency services, with his high angle rescue team operations. Dean had asked Bo if he would help out with a mock rescue operation on Sheer Lunacy, a climbing route near Angel’s Landing. Bo was intrigued and accepted. He climbed to the top of Sheer Lunacy and lowered himself a few hundred feet so that the team could affect a rescue. At the end of the day as they were getting ready to leave, a call came in for the rescue of a woman in the Subway. Dave asked Bo if he would like to come along and help. He accepted. The next morning he got a call from Dave asking him if he would like to be a part of the high angle rescue team and the rest, as they say, is history.
That was almost 20 years ago. Bo is now a seasoned, crusty, mid 50 year old man with near a quarter century of experience in rescue who could out-hike most 20 year olds. He is not only knowledgeable and experienced, he is unabashedly protective of the role of search and rescue and the people who choose to do it. “Ultimately, your safety is up to you,” Bo said, “Do the research, get trained, know the routes, have the right and necessary gear, and if possible, go with someone experienced and responsible who knows the route. The SARs mission is not to save people, but to rescue people – if possible.” While it is understandable that when someone dies out in the wilderness the loved ones left behind want to know the details about how and why it happened, it is also often the case that they are looking for someone or something to blame. Unfortunately that blame is often directed at search and rescue personnel. I asked him about the placement of blame on SAR personnel.
“People look for somebody to blame. Maybe there is somebody to blame. When something goes wrong, families and people are looking for answers. Sometimes it’s nature. Sometimes it’s a decision made by someone that ended up being fatal. Search and rescue cannot be blamed for anything. Search and rescue is not there to keep everyone safe. They are there to rescue someone if they can, but not at the expense of their own lives. Training is a big part of that. Sometimes it turns out, sometimes it doesn’t. Mistakes can be made. But again, for search and rescue, the number one priority is the safety of the SAR team. Period. They don’t want another injury or fatality. When the safety of the team is secure, they then go in for the injured person. Teams are constantly training for different scenarios, but situations are always different, and all you can do is continue to learn and do the best that you can.”
I asked how dangerous it was for SAR teams to go out on rescues, “When someone engages in dangerous activities there is always risk involved. It’s always dangerous, there is always danger involved no matter what.” I asked Bo what his advice would be to people wishing to canyoneer or get into the backcountry. “Training, get the training,” he said, “By training, that danger can be mitigated to a certain degree. But there’s always going to be danger. You can’t control if a rock is going to fall and hit somebody, or if someone is going to slip and wasn’t properly tied in, or the wrong knot was tied or something of that nature. So it’s always constant, but you can mitigate risk with the proper training. You have one opportunity for a mistake. You can’t learn on the fly. If possible, go with someone who knows the route. Someone conscientious and capable will be able to help you and give you sound advice on the beta to safely do a route.” We briefly talked about expert athletes getting injured and killed to which Bo replied, “Nobody’s exempt. Nobody. You can’t control everything; you’ve just got to control what you can based on what you know.”
As we drew closer to The Lady, my stomach started to get tied up in knots. I felt like a superstitious sailor engaged in conversation about capsized ships and drowned sailors while heading into a storm and wondered if we should stop talking about dislodged rocks and people falling to their deaths. Lady Mountain is 1.9 miles of near vertical scrambling and climbing, with an elevation gain of 2,345 feet in 1.6 miles. The narrow trail has a couple of sketchy 5.7 climbs on sheer walls with high altitude drop offs, as well as several steep pitches. I was familiar with these sections as we were almost to the summit when we had to abandon the trip out of safety concerns for our injured team member. I prayed this trip would be successful and injury free.
Do you dread the calls when they come in, fearful it is someone you know? I asked. “Yeah, I think I have from the very beginning,” he said, “Prior to Sasha I had done maybe two or three other body recoveries in Zion and I didn’t know who they were, but after a body recovery the National Park Service has you attend a critical incident stress debriefing. You sit with someone who is trained to help you deal with it emotionally. I went to the first couple of those and it wasn’t really too bothersome to me; however, when I went to get Sasha’s body, you know she’s about the same age as my daughter. I imaged if it was my daughter and how it would have crushed me. I put myself in the shoes of her dad who was there that evening and it was tough. I didn’t go to the critical incident debriefing after her recovery. I think I held that in. I didn’t let it out. It was with me for all those years. Then when Tiffany wanted to do Employee Canyon to get closure, I looked at it as an opportunity for me to get closure too; maybe I needed it as well. And it was great, it was beautiful, to finally let go. It was kind of a double release for me because I had been on the recovery for Lyle’s body a year prior, who was a pretty close friend. I was finally able to let go.”
I asked him if he felt a responsibility to people since Bo is often the go-to man when people have questions about canyoneering, climbing, hiking, and anything outdoor related. I would image he talks to hundreds of people. “When a customer I knew had to get rescued twice I thought, you know, maybe I shouldn’t be dispelling so much information to these people. Maybe I shouldn’t be prodding them on to pursue this. I should probably get to know the people a little more and see what their capabilities are.” I could imagine that given Bo’s experience in search and rescue, he might feel an added burden for the safety of people embarking on such adventures. I asked him if that was why he was so giving with his time and so willing to go out with people. He had always been willing to go with me and I knew he went out often with others, friends and strangers alike.
“I think I do not consciously feel that weight. Honestly, it is more of an ego thing. I like to take people out and show them what I’ve done. It may make me sound like a jackass, but in a way, it’s an ego thing. I enjoy doing it because I like showing people what I’ve done. But at the same time, yeah, I think I like to ensure people are safe and I try to instill in people to be safe. You know, you were there on the last Lady Mountain trip. I said let’s stick together as a group. Well, half the group took off and I thought later, maybe if we had stuck together nothing would have happened. I can’t blame myself. I’ve been with a good friend before where I told her not to do something and then when I turned around; she did it anyway and almost fell to her death. So I kind of feel like a father figure, or an authority. Maybe that’s wrong, I don’t know. I’ve been in positions and seen where people have done things that I wouldn’t have done and it got them into trouble.”
By the time we had wrapped up our conversation, we were pulling up to the gate at Zion. I knew I felt better going out on adventures with Bo, he was always safe, patient, and was the consummate guide. Whether for ego or not, when you go out with him, it comes across like an act of service. He almost always goes first, does the sketchiest climbs in order to help others, and is always giving advice about how to stay safe. Our mission to reach the summit of Lady Mountain was a success. It was a cool, beautiful spring day. Bo had brought a canteen of wine that got passed around the group as we took in the breathtaking 360 degree view on top of what seemed like the stairway to heaven. We didn’t see a soul the entire trip until we got back down by the Emerald Pools.
I considered myself lucky to be counted one of Bo’s friends, and to get the chance to spend time with him. Bo is funny, unselfish with his knowledge, giving with his time, and is one of the most caring and sensitive men I know. It is said that we care about what we invest in; if that’s true, Bo invests in people and for that, he feels deeply for them, and they for him. I am certain that on any given weekend, Bo gets half a dozen invitations by people wishing to spend a day with him, and you are lucky if you get to. If our treasure is where our heart is, Bo’s is the outdoor community that he serves, spends time with, and searches for and rescues. It has been his life’s work, and because of it, he is deservedly an icon in southern Utah.
Posted on April 29, 2014, in Profiles of the Southwest and tagged base jumping deaths at zion, Bo Beck, canyoneering in zion, Employee Canyon, Favorite hikes in & around zion national park, Lady Mountain Zion National Park, Mountain of the Sun Zion National Park, southern utah, the Desert Rat, Zion search and rescue. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.